When I worked as an advertising account manager in 2013 and 2014 (thank god that’s over) my main job duty was to pretty much call every business in Morris County and solicit them for advertising. I always got interesting – sometimes rude and sometimes surprisingly receptive – answers from whoever had the misfortune of picking up my bored call. However, I still remember what the busy employee at Pub 199 said to me when I called them on one fateful day.
When New Jersey culinary legend Andrea “Andy” Clurfeld – 30-year food journalist, former James Beard Awards Committee member and Pulitzer Prize finalist – tells you that you just have to check out a new restaurant, you go.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m always pretty psyched to tell them that I write about local travel and food in my Tuesday column and our Wednesday Table section.
Immediately, they usually have quite a few questions.
“How do you find restaurants to review?”
“What if a restaurant turns out to be bad?”
Every time, I launch into my usual speech — I don’t review anything. I only write about restaurants that I like in the first place, but as a journalist, I was trained that no one cares about your opinion. So in my food/restaurant stories, which often sneak into my travel column as well as my Table stories, I never critique the restaurant.
Today, I’m an ever-hungry Jersey food writer for this blog as well as Gannett New Jersey’s MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com, which congregate from the Courier News, Home News Tribune and Daily Record. But as a kid, I was labeled as a picky eater.
Today, I also know better. I was never a picky eater – I was a selective eater.
I crinkled my nose at bologna sandwiches at lunchtime and my mother’s dinnertime microwave meals. I passed on frozen pizza and plastic-looking macaroni. I wasn’t interested in questionable buffet items or soggy french fries.
However, I was definitely down to try colorful sushi rolls, exotic meats and other eloquently prepared dishes that I had never seen in a school cafeteria or even in my own fridge. I’m still the same way today – I gravitate towards something a little stylish, a little fashionable or a little odd over a burger any day, most of which I’m totally incapable of cooking or creating myself.
Many of these dishes that I love the most tend to be of Asian influence – I could eat Thai, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese cuisine every day of the week. However, there are two outstanding issues with this – one, I frequently don’t really know what I’m ordering and two, I’m often dropping quite a chunk of change at fancy restaurants.
I really love sushi. But being that I’m also poor, the sushi joints I go to tend to be a little shady, all-you-can-eat, 50 percent off when you pay cash and housed in dingy corners of town.
On most nights when we are craving sushi, my boyfriend, Mike, and I tend to head to Kumo Asian Bistro, a much-untapped sushi restaurant in downtown Somerville that offers all-you-can-eat sushi and sashimi for $23 per person on a weekday and $25 per person on a weekend. The huge restaurant, which has incredibly fresh fish for what you pay, tends to be mostly empty, quiet and relaxing.
However, last night, I really wanted to try Shumi, a high-end Somerville sushi eatery that has frequently been called New Jersey’s best sushi restaurant. Mike told me, “Just so you know, it’s a little expensive,” but we had no idea the hits our wallets would be taking until much later.
As a classic clutcher of a glass-half-empty, I’m always aware when visiting a new city that I’m probably not going to eat quite as well as I do at home in New Jersey, where I know my fair share of hidden gem restaurants as well as what spots are grossly overrated.
Unfortunately, when traveling, I don’t have this kind of advantage. Instead, I’m at the whim of what restaurants are within walking distance of my lodging, passing recommendations from Uber drivers and how many stars a particular eatery as garnered via a quick Google search.
However, during my recent stay in Durham, North Carolina, for a wedding, I have to say that for one of the only times in my life, every restaurant that we sampled was simply fantastic. Here’s my recap.
Today, part of my job at MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com is to write for our weekly Table section, where we feature restaurants, food news and the like. So, basically, I live the dream – I visit new local restaurants, try out cool dishes and hang out with like-minded people who don’t eat to live, but live to eat.
Although I do get to meet lots of friendly restaurant owners and chefs whose mouths literally water as they describe their favorite meals, I also meet a lot of food snobs. These people generally believe that the best wines are those you can’t pronounce and the best restaurants can only be found in the hidden corners of the world.
When you live on the Jersey Shore, summer doesn’t start on June 21, when the sand gets hot, or even when the local pools open up. Beachrats can barely wait for an 80-degree thermometer to tinker on over to the beach (which is why you can spot them surfing in the dead of winter), but instead, you’ll find these dirty combers scouring the sands as soon as the calendar swings over May.
Why? They don’t care if they have to wear jeans to do it – these people want to be on their boats, in the kayaks, hovered over the side with fishing poles, and trotting down the boardwalk with their sloppy puppies – and they don’t want to wait. However, even the dirtiest beachrat needs a nice meal once in a while that didn’t come from a truck, which is why you should check out the below Jersey Shore restaurants in between the spouts of living in your car this summer, especially before all those bennies get down there in mid June.
1. The Lobster House at Cape May Harbor
The Lobster House is a staple of a weekend well spent in the southern shores. With a modest price tag for outdoor seating, you can grab some menus, mark it up with your people, and head over to the respective bars to grab your crab cakes, clam chowder, and oysters on the half shell and enjoy them on the deck across the bay from million-dollar homes and yachts and plenty of gulls. The Lobster House is a great alternative to pricey seafood dining with the hometown, lazy feel of a boardwalk restaurant. Learn more at thelobsterhouse.com.
Photo Courtesy of Ed Morlock
2. Boathouse Restaurant at Wildwood
At Boathouse, choose indoor or outdoor seating for stunning panoramic views of the harbor while enjoying top-of-the-line fresh clams casino, steamed mussels, stuffed flounder, or twin lobster tails. A classier establishment than other harborside seafood restaurants, Boathouse is a great end note when you’re feeling like you deserve to spend a few bucks. Learn more at boathouseonline.net.
Photo Courtesy of Jenna Intersimone
3. Rooney’s Ocean Crab House at Long Branch
Rooney’s is a top-of-the-line restaurant and raw bar that sits just far enough from the hub of Pier Village while facing the Atlantic in a completely glass-screened seating area. Offering a raw bar, conveniently placed circular bar, private parties, and a truly stellar $30 all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch until Memorial Day that is never crowded, Rooney’s is a great spot for birthdays and anniversaries while also being a go-to for nursing your Sunday morning hangover with a Mimosa and some crab legs. Learn more at rooneysocean.com.
Photo Courtesy of Jenna Intersimone
4. Moonstruck at Asbury Park
With an ambiance that doesn’t mimic pinkies in the air or bored businessmen, Moonstruck is reminiscient of an old-school cocktail lounge and restaurant tucked away at the corner of town in a romantic old building. Travel up the hiking steps, grab a bottle of wine, and listen to the insanity of Asbury Park from nearby… in the quiet corner of Moonstruck, equipped with a variation of classic Italian dishes. Learn more at moonstrucknj.com.
Photo Courtesy of oldbridgemusiccenter.wordpress.com
5. Stella Marina at Asbury Park
Stella Marina boasts an extensive Italian menu in a classy, white tablecloth environment overlooking one of the most notorious boardwalks in the United States. With outstanding views of the Asbury beaches below, visitors enjoy some classic Italian accompanied by plenty of wines fit for events such as birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. Learn more at stellamarinarestaurant.com.
Photo Courtesy of restaurantpassion.com
Due to my journalism training, I tend to stay away from grandiose statements such as the best place I’ve ever been, because unlike blog posts, it is very difficult to numerically list such abstract things in life, especially when you’ve been around the block a few times and you’re getting up there in age. When people ask me where I would like to live or who my favorite writer is, I’m often left sitting there speechless like some sort of imbecile. However, when someone asks me what the best meal I ever had was, I already know my answer before the question is out of their mouth.
If there is a Heaven, the rest of us will spend eternity enjoying the cooking of those with dark hair, loud voices, and beautiful accents – the Italians. When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy last fall, I could easily declare the dinner I ate each and every night the best meal I ever had. Because hell, let’s be serious, when you’re a beautiful Italian man dishing out red wines, limoncello, tiramasu, fresh bread, and every kind of pasta I have ever seen, it’s hard to not be overcome with dinner emotion. However, I didn’t know what I was talking about until I visited Acqua al 2 located on a narrow side street, Via della Vigna Vecchia, in the heart of Florence near the Duomo.
Study abroad students and Italian visitors in general are known for saying “Oh, you just have to go to this restaurant, best food I ever had, except hold on, can’t quite remember what it’s called….” but the blueberry steak at this place makes it a difficult restaurant to forget.
My roommate Andrea and I visited Acqua al 2 on several occasions, however now looking back, I wish we had gone a lot more often. We started out sharing a dry house red wine with our freshly baked unsalted bread before moving onto the pumpkin pasta, one of the chef’s daily new creations. This pasta was coated with what appeared to be a red-orange vodka sauce, but instead, had been enveloped in this fall flavored pumpkin topping. The pasta sampler is another great option, giving you the chance to try basically whatever the chef feels like making, which is good enough for me.
Then, we moved onto the main course – the blueberry steak, a small lump of steak about the size of one’s fist that in size, does not measure up to the typical Florentine t-bone steak, however this tender and girthy piece of meat is also soaked in a thick blueberry sauce who’s deep taste and texture are only emboldened by the steak’s flavor. A steak sampler is also offered, which contains the blueberry steak, the balsamic steak, and a classic steak, however blueberry is really the way to go due to its oddness.
And then, finally, we would always cap the whole thing off with the dessert sampler, which contained a cookies and marshmallow cake, homemade tiramasu, a vanilla and raspberry cheesecake, and, of course, cannolis.
Great. Now I’m hungry and all I have to eat is damn Elio’s pizza.
Acqua al 2 also has another location located at 212 7th St SE, Washington, DC. You can call at (202) 525-4375 for more information.
Yesterday we enjoyed a relaxing, sunny afternoon in beautiful Wine Country, sipping on whites and reds while sampling fine cheeses before taking an outing through the vineyards lain across the rolling green hills without a care in the world. Tuscany, you may think? Maybe Napa Valley? Oh no. We were in scenic Pittstown, New Jersey, located in northwest Jersey just a little bit off of the beaten path.
At first, the idea of visiting a winery, a beloved and precious place that now makes me think of Italy in the way that tattered old photos make you think of your angelic passed dog, made me wonder if I could even take it, if I could enjoy a place that was so magnificent across the Atlantic but seemed like it could only be a cheap and sad imitation in the US of A. And to be honest, it actually wasn’t half bad.
Beneduce Vineyards was one of the few wineries in the area I was able to sniff out that wasn’t an obscene distance from my house in the Middle of Nowhere, New Jersey (only about 45 minutes away) and had a pretty down-to-earth deal concerning wine tastings and tours and such, because let’s be honest, you can’t drive that far just to gulp down some wine. Unlike many other wineries I was looking at, you didn’t need an appointment to come to a tasting or 11 other people or an extra $150 bucks.
Instead, for $10 and from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm on Sundays, my boyfriend and I sampled a pretty humble amount of four different wines, which I guess I couldn’t complain about for $10.The girl at the desk who poured each wine for us had a pretty extensive knowledge about how each was made and bottled and the quirks and its appropriate pairings. Which was made even better because with the four wines, we received some meat and cheese, which we maybe sort of substituted for lunch that day. Whoops.
After the wines and the free glasses we received with them and the food, for some odd reason, the workers at Beneduce Winery then handed us over some keys to their golf carts to cruise their winery on their own doing. They offer a tour by one of their own workers, but I think everyone felt the same way as we did (who needs a tour of a vineyard?) because as we were cruising around in a semi-drunken stupor (after figuring out how to drive the cart, which they don’t bother telling you about either) we saw many other yippity groups giving themselves tours (AKA going as fast as they could in a golf cart without running over any plants).
Mostly, the vineyard part is just a nice photo op, since without someone telling you about each one, the only info is a sign saying what kind of grape each plant is. It’s still fun to cruise around in a real live vineyard, and maybe stop at the hammock on the outskirts too for an afternoon nap. Hey, why not?
It may not be my beautiful Tuscany. It may not be France or Napa or any other places that house wine country. Jeez, it’s just New Jersey. But I think there is something to be said for finding gems in your own backyard. It doesn’t require a full wallet or a plane ticket or a pompous sense of what’s high class. All you need is a little research to see what’s hiding right before your very eyes.